13. A Disciple Spends Time in the Word

A committed disciple is committed to spend time in the written Word of God so as to have the knowledge base required to grow in likeness to, and fellowship with, the Word Made Flesh. Christians should seek to know the truth, because the truth of God sets us free to be people God wants us to be. Time in the word of God is not alone enough to be a transformed disciple of Christ, but it is essential.

Each morning, I spend the first few minutes of the day reading the Bible and praying. I have been a Christian since 1977, and for most of that time, this practice has been my daily routine. This has been true as a layperson, as a pastor, and as a parent. After all these years, I do not feel right on the days I skip this sacred time and believe it makes a difference in who I am and how I behave. (I like to say, “I am not who I should be, but thank God I am not who was was!”)

To be a disciple of Jesus is to be centered in Scripture so that we can have a life-changing relationship with the One of whom Scripture speaks. A great deal of what we can know about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Christian life we learn by listening to the voice of God in Scripture. This “knowing about,” however, is of little use to us unless it results in our growing in a relationship with God in Christ and in our personal likeness to Christ. We have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. We must be doers and just hearers of the word (James 2:17).

In Acts, Paul leaves Thessalonica for Berea. The Thessalonians were resistant to the Good News and did not want to hear Paul’s message. In Berea, things were different. Luke records: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men” (Acts 17:11-12). Those who earnestly hear the gospel of Christ are almost always the most eager to study their Scriptures. We study Scripture to test the testimony and opinions of others and to grow in our understanding of God, God’s world, our fallenness, our constant need for mercy, and our unique place in God’s plan to redeem the world.

In perhaps his last letter, Paul underscores the importance of Scripture as he writes Timothy:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

Here we see Scripture lifted up for what it is: the source of Godly wisdom, of a deeper understanding of the secret wisdom revealed in Christ, of the nature of faith, and of our hope in God through Christ. The Scripture was given to us by the Spirit of God to teach us, rebuke us of our sin, correct our errors, and train us in the ways of God. Notice that all this implies that Scripture was given to us so that we might change, grow, and reach out to a lost and broken world.

The Crisis of Biblical Knowledge

For a long time, pastors, scholars, and students have known that “Biblical literacy” is declining in our culture. There was a time when the Bible was found in almost every home in Europe and North America. There was a time, before radio, television, and other forms of media, when reading the Bible in family groups was common. There was a time when public schools and colleges taught the Bible and taught literature based upon the Bible. In such a culture, most people grew up with some basic understanding of the story the Bible is telling in the culture was formed by the story of the Bible.

This is no longer true. The story that the Bible tells us no longer at the center of our civilization. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the Cost of Discipleship, Europe was no longer filled with Christians who were constantly renewing their life in Christ. The elites of most European countries no longer believed in historic Christian faith. However, educated people were still part of a culture in which their fundamental values were formed by the Christian story. Colleges and Universities were still formed by the Biblical story even of many people no longer believed.

Unfortunately, this is no longer true in the West. Instead, in Europe and America, as well as the other parts of the world formed by a post-Christian culture, political, educational, cultural, and artistic leaders are generally formed by a worldview that excludes a personal God, the miraculous, the notion of a personal communication from God, prayer, the idea that God speaks to certain people with a word for others, and other facets of historic Christian faith. People formed by such a worldview do not intuitively find Christian faith, values, or morals important or realistic.

The situation will not change any time soon, and the current crisis of discipleship will continue until a group of people are so deeply formed by the Christian story and Christian faith that their approach to life and its problems are undeniably changed and different than the approach of the surrounding culture. The formation and growth of such a people cannot be done by mass media, corporate education, or large, music or entertainment driven, worship services. [1] This kind of formation can only be done in small communities of people who are studying the Scriptures, praying, and living out the Christian life together. The situation in our society will not change until there is a completely different approach to discipleship, one that focuses on living the Bible as much or more than teaching or sharing its truths.

A Changed World View

In Romans 12, Paul talks about our need to see the world the way God sees the world when he says:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2).

Paul, like Jesus, knew that our faith should make a difference in how we behave. He teaches us that, if we see the world the way God sees the world (with eyes of steadfast, self-giving love), and are transformed in the way we view the world, then we will offer God our live to God and do the things that please God. Christians need to be transformed into bearers of God’s love and truth into their day-to-day world. This transformation will not occur until and unless we change the way we see the world, think about the world, and respond to the challenges of everyday life.

The Bible is a tool we should use in day-to-day life. All tools require skill to use them properly. Generally, the utility of a tool is only fully available to a craftsman trained and experienced in the proper use of the tool, so that its use is second nature. Mental tools are no different. The value of the Bible is not in the study of it, or even in the memorization of its teachings, but in internalizing and consciously and unconsciously learning to live out its truth over an extended period of time. [2]

As we study, memorize, and meditate on the Bible and the story of God and humanity that it tells, we learn to “indwell” the Biblical story and its principles. Only when the stories and teachings of the Bible are internalized, so they are available to us as part of our conscious and unconscious perception of the world, do they perform their most important use in guiding thought and action. [3]

The crisis of faith we face is largely due to a lack of understanding and internalizing the story of God’s love affair with all people, of every tribe and nation. The Good News of this love affair is contained in the Bible, and particularly in the stories of the life death and resurrection of Jesus, of his interaction with people, and of the response of those people to the Good News. Our civilization has lost its unconscious understanding of the nature of God’s love and of its power to guide us in everyday life and in the decisions of everyday life. If we want to be changed by this story and help the world see the difference it makes, we have to take time to be in the word of God and allow it to mold our character and actions.

Transformed by the Word

As Christians study Scripture and meditate upon the One revealed in its pages, we encounter God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. As Paul says in Romans, “faith comes from hearing, and the message is revealed through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Later, in Colossians, Paul urges Christians to, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). It is in hearing and internalizing the Word of God, so that the word becomes the way in which we understand the meaning of the world, that we are changed into the image of Christ. As we listen to others in a Bible Study or Sunday School Class, God’s word, the Word of Christ, enters and dwells within our hearts through the window of our minds. Slowly, but surely, we are transformed.

Having a Good Bible Study

There are many ways to grow as a disciple by meditating on Scripture. There was a time when there was a lack of good group Bible Study materials. This is no longer true. There are many good Bible Study guides ranging from Sunday School materials, guides to the study of books of the Bible, and topical study guides in areas such as prayer, marriage, finances, child raising, coming to Christ, etc. All these resources help a group center itself on Holy Scripture. Not only do resources exist in printed form, but there are many ways to use materials to be found on the internet or in electronic media. Some of this material is free. [4]

Discipleship groups are not the place for large, lecture-oriented study. The key to a good discipleship group Bible study is its personal character. So, a study should have these three basic characteristics.

  • Group Discussion. People remember about ten percent of what they hear and about eighty percent of what they Therefore, lecture is not the best method for Bible Study. The best method for life-transforming Bible study involves personal interaction among people. This means the leader must avoid lecturing too much.
  • Open-ended Questions. It is always best to ask questions that enable group members to answer correctly whatever they say. So, questions like, “What did this passage mean to you” are always better than questions like, “What does John Calvin say about this passage?”
  • Focus on Application. It is important to remember that God is more interested in what Christians put to work in their lives than in how much they abstract knowledge they possess. It is always a good idea to end the study of a passage with a discussion of the question, “How am I going to live differently today now that I have studied this passage?”

If it is true that God exists in relationship and wants to draw us into his Triune relationship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then it is not surprising that God wants us to hear his Word both in relationship to his own person (Christ) and in relationship to the Body of Christ. He wants us to hear this word in our own private Bible study, and corporately as we study the Bible in groups and hear the word of God proclaimed in worship.

A commitment to grow as a disciple is important. God does not want us to be mere hearers of his Word. He wants to transform our lives so that we live out that word in our day-to-day lives. This is why James says in his letter “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). While it is true that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:9), we are also saved for the good works we will do in response to what God has done for us in Christ (2:10). The purpose of our Bible study is not merely to improve our minds and understanding, it is to transform us mind, body, heart, and soul. This requires more than an objective study.

Basic Bible Study Rules

Becoming a good leader for people who want to know more about the Bible is not as hard as it might seem. Here are some helpful rules in developing Bible study skills:

  • Use the Bible. If you are studying the Bible privately, you need a Bible! If you are in a Bible study group, everyone needs a Bible or a copy of the text the group is studying. In some Bible study materials, the text will be reprinted. In others, people must have a Bible as well as the guide. It is also helpful if everyone is using the same version of the Bible.
  • Read the Bible. No matter how good a Bible study is, the purpose is to learn the Bible. Much of the Bible began as an orally transmitted message of faith. Therefore, it is always a good idea to begin by reading the selected passage aloud. This allows the modern hearer to experience something of the oral tradition from which Scripture emerged. Stick to the text at hand. Avoid cross-referencing other biblical texts unless it is absolutely necessary. Before reading the text tells the group where it can be found can be found.
  • Opening Question. If you are the lead teacher of a group, think out beforehand the first question you will ask. The first question is always the most important of all. It opens the discussion and often determines the character of the group’s interaction. This kind of question most often can take the form of, “What teaching of this verse made an impression on you?” or “What did you find most interesting about this passage?”
  • Reflective Questions. Whether studying alone or in a group, there is no Bible study unless we engage the text. In reading this passage of Scripture or book, here are some questions you may want to ask yourself about the text:
    • What immediate message do you hear?
    • What feelings are you having in reading this?
    • What was helpful?
    • How I am I going to act differently because I have read this text?
  • Let Questions Guide the Study. Ask questions which are clearly tied to the text and build logically upon one another. If a question is not understood, restate it in different words. Limit initial comments to key information and definition. Focus on the most important aspects of the passage. Try not to answer your own question. If a question does not gain response, move on to another After the first response to a question, ask if anyone has a different or additional response. Don’t exhaust a question before moving to the next verse or question. Let the group set the agenda. Above all, realize that most questions do not have a single answer. Affirm those who respond if at all possible.
  • Involve the Imagination. One of the most important techniques that a teacher or student can use is to the whole person: sight, sound, touch, thought in the study. For example, as the text is read aloud, visualize for yourself or have the group visualize the scene. Ask the group to imagine how they would have reacted if they had been present. This is especially useful when studying a story from the Bible or a parable from Jesus.
  • Share Personal Meaning. Ask yourself the question, “What does this passage mean to me?” In a group Bible study, the most important thing to know is what the text means to the people present. This does not mean ignoring commentaries or historical understanding. It just means that what changes a life is a personal experience of the power of the Word.
  • Don’t Be Afraid. One barrier to some people exercising gifts for leadership in Bible Study is a fear of not knowing the answer. “I really do not know” is always a good answer. If you do not know, offer to study the question and give an answer at the next meeting. Even pastors do not know all there is to know about the Bible. Therefore, you should not be afraid to say you don’t know.
  • Stay in One Passage. One common mistake is to play “Bible Hopscotch.” Most people do not have a ready familiarity with the Bible, and flipping pages makes them nervous. Sometimes to get a clear idea of what Scripture means, we need to study more than one passage. Much of the time, however, this is not necessary. Staying in a passage allows us to memorize and remember that passage and allow that passage to change our lives.
  • Use Various Methods. Any Bible Study style when overused gets old. Variety is the spice of life, and we should use a variety of teaching tools and methods.

The methods that can be used to study Scripture are numerous. Not every technique that works for one person works for another. People in different generations may prefer different forms of Bible study. For example, I am in my 60s. Frankly, I do not enjoy media driven Bible studies as much as younger people in our church. This doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with me or something wrong with the younger people. It means that different generations, with different life experiences, prefer different kinds of Bible studies.

Conclusion

Sometime in the Spring of 1977, I attended a little Bible study in Houston, Texas. It was led by a newly-graduated seminary student and a few laypeople. We sang a few songs, prayed, studied together, prayed, and sang a closing song. This particular Bible Study meant enough to me that our family has always been involved in small, intimate Bible Studies. If I look back on my life and ask the question, “When did I grow the most as a Christian in the least amount of time?” The answer is, “In the Friday Night Bible Study.”

Interestingly, we called our system of study, “Group Grope,” meaning that none of us understood the deepest meaning of most of what we studied. We were beginners. Nevertheless, we studied and allowed God’s word to change our lives. We grew in Christ. We started businesses, families, and shared in the struggles of young adulthood. Almost all the members of the Friday Night Bible study are still Christians are Christian leaders in their churches and communities. At least three of us are pastors.

We did not know it, but we were involved in a transformational Bible study. We were not as interested in becoming Biblical scholars as in becoming better Christians. The crisis of discipleship we face in America will not be overcome primarily by scholarly, critical, information-centered studies. It will be overcome by transformational studies led by thousands and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people allowing the Word of God to change them. [5]

More importantly, people in our society will not be changed by words alone. One of the principal elements of postmodernism is a rejection of truth claims. In other words, postmodernism does not necessarily believe that there is anything called “truth” to be found. In such a society, people must see the gospel lived out in an attractive way before they will ever accept the truth of the gospel and live it out in their own lives. The truth Christians proclaim is not a bid for power over other people. It is an invitation to enter a relationship with the God of infinite love and wisdom who desires to draw the entire human race into one family filled with the joy of the presence of infinite love and infinite wisdom.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] I hesitated to use the phrase, “large music or entertainment driven churches,” for fear that the phrase would be taken pejoratively. Recent years have seen the emergence of large congregations that rely upon sophisticated media and popular music in worship. There is nothing wrong with this approach.  I have been the pastor of such congregations. However, as powerful as the worship experience may be in these congregations, discipleship formation cannot be done in worship alone, however powerful. Many of these congregations recognize this fact and are deeply committed to developing discipling ministries in their congregation.

[2] See, Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 198, 1962), 58-59.

[3] See, Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1983). See also the work of Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1989) for a theological and missional adaptation of Polanyi’s notion of indwelling.

[4] When downloading materials from the internet it is important to remember that not all the materials found on the internet are sound. Many individuals put up materials that does not reflect either the spirit or the words of Christ or the experience of the Church over the centuries.

[5] I make this point with trepidation. It is a fact that transformational Bible studies should form the core of any discipleship program. However, longer and deeper, more theological Bible studies do have a place in the church. In both my congregations, the Disciple Bible Study Series of year-long encounters with the word of God played a big role in the development of leaders and of disciples.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *